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Alumni couple stresses importance of skills

Alumni couple stresses importance of skills

By Audrey Sapunarich

Dr. Karen Fuhrman ’86 and Michael Kerner ’86 sat down for lunch with students in the Harpur Edge office on Oct. 30. The couple advised students that what they major in is less important than the skills they learn.

Fuhrman, an optometric physician based in New Jersey, majored in English. Kerner, former CEO of general insurance for Zurich Insurance, majored in math and economics.

“When you’re a math major, are you learning math? My point of view is you’re learning how to solve problems. In life you’re going to have many problems to solve. Being able to deploy a toolbox to solve a problem is the skill you’re going to learn [in math],” Kerner said. “In English, you learn communication skills and it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Shakespeare, economic theory or politics, those are the skills you need to have.”

Fuhrman agreed, telling students she arrived at Binghamton University with a love for reading and writing but a desire to pursue optometry.

“I always wanted to be an optometrist because when I was in fifth grade, I got my first pair of glasses,” she said. “I had a John Denver haircut and then my mother made me get these horrible glasses. The doctor knew I was upset about the whole process so the doctor talked to me about what he was doing. I loved writing and reading so I was conflicted when I went to college. I decided by taking pre-med courses that would satisfy my pre-optometric courses and I majored in English. I had professors like Libby Tucker who taught fantasy and folklore and modern drama. I really enjoyed my experience.”

Fuhrman, a resident assistant in Hinman College for two years, said she noticed many of her peers had difficulty communicating and writing.

“In Hinman, every winter season we’d have an angel program. Someone would be your angel and you’d buy tiny gifts for them and put up signs saying ‘your angel wishes you luck on your test’ and things like that. I realized I could narrow down who my angel was because [the sign said] ‘your angle wishes you good luck.’ My angle? Which one — obtuse?” Fuhrman said jokingly.

She said it frustrated her to hear people say she took the “easy way out” by being an English major. She said the skills she learned in her major have been essential to her career.

“I believe my English major has made me a much better communicator,” she said. “When a person walks into my room, I look at them holistically. I see the whole picture, not just a pair of eyeballs. People think I’m intuitive but it’s because I can read people and I hear what they’re saying. I think it makes me a better clinician, a better optometrist. It’s not an ‘easy’ major. You have an aptitude for something. I would suggest that for anyone: major in something you have an aptitude for.”

Kerner found his aptitude in analytical problem solving and crunching numbers.

He became an actuary after landing a summer internship with Insurance Services Office, Inc. He was hired full-time after graduating and came back to Binghamton as a recruiter. After serving there for more than three years, Kerner began working for Zurich Insurance in 1992.

“You don’t come out of the womb wanting to be in the insurance business,” Kerner said.

“I think you did actually,” Fuhrman said, laughing.

“Most people fall into it. I did that very much,” Kerner said. “Opportunities present and you make of them what you want.”

The couple encouraged students to try new things — especially traveling.

“I came to Binghamton and I didn’t even have a passport. I had never left the United States. Last year I visited 25 countries,” Kerner said. “I actually have two passports. I feel like James Bond.”

Fuhrman said she had been to her mother’s homeland, Austria, once when she was 7 years old but, like her husband, she was unfamiliar with the world outside the U.S. while at Binghamton.

“I found that when I was in the United States, I was a little more narrow-minded and not open to different cultures. I wasn’t aware of them. I truly wish everybody in the world had the opportunity to live elsewhere,” Fuhrman said. “Traveling has broken down so many barriers. You realize that people from everywhere are fundamentally the same. Both our children are so without prejudice. It’s incredible to see how that has happened for them.”

The family has lived abroad for years at a time and the children formed friendships all over the world. Kerner said when the family returned to live in the United States, their son’s school was teaching a module on the Holocaust.

“My son got upset because the teacher was teaching it in the context of how bad the German people were to have allowed the Holocaust to happen,” Kerner said. “This distressed my son because he had a lot of friends that were German kids. He came back after a day of school and said, ‘Dad, this is just not right. Germans are not bad people. They had bad leadership.’ And I thought that was a brilliant conclusion.”

The couple encouraged students to open their minds to new things and explore beyond their interests, whether it be through traveling or coursework.

“If you’re even remotely considering something outside your major, it’s a great thing to do,” Fuhrman said.

“I have been in a department with a music major pursuing actuarial work. The guy was a great piano player and singer doing something completely different. And obviously, an English major (Fuhrman) has become a doctor,” Kerner said. “Don’t say ‘no’ to things because you can never tell where it’s going to lead. The best experiences I’ve had were when I said ‘yes’ to things that had me outside my comfort zone.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17